God isn’t the great helicopter parent in the sky (at least that’s what the Bible says)

Posted by PeteEnns on August 25, 2016 in biblical theology Christian faith and life 12 Comments

Although my three children are now (dear God, please) well-adjusted 20-somethings, mine was the generation of parents who hovered over their children to insulate them from failure and ensure their “success” in life (good grades, sports, avoiding drugs, learning violin, whatever).

But, as any decent child psychologist (not to mention previous generations of parents) will tell us, good parenting isn’t about plugging in the right coordinates to ensure children arrive at the right spot, or protecting them from failure and pain that come with growth, or arranging their environment so that it all works out for them.

Good parenting is preparing children to figure things out for themselves as they go along in life, i.e., hovering early on but then looking for ways to stop hovering as soon as possible.

The more I look at the Bible as a whole, the more I see that God is not a helicopter parent. 

Now, you can focus in on some portions of the Bible in isolation—say the exodus period with all its strict laws—and it sure looks like God is hovering and micromanaging Israel’s every move to make sure they “turn out O.K.”: Don’t worship idols, sacrifice this and that at certain days and times, be sure to eat foods only from column A, not from column B, etc.

But when I look at the Bible as a whole—not individual stages on the journey—I see a very different picture.

The Bible gives diverse information on even some of the most basic questions of faith. This diverse information really can’t be—and I feel shouldn’t be—harmonized to yield “one lesson” or any such thing. Rather, I feel the presence of this diversity brings us to a different conclusion.

Take God, for instance.

If you look to the Bible to find out what God is like, you won’t find a handy information packet. You see varying portraits of God. Depending on where you read,

  • God either knows everything or and is surprised and reacts accordingly (like in the story of Noah and the Flood in Genesis 6);
  • God is either set in his ways as a sovereign ruler or he changes his mind when pressed (as with Moses in Exodus 33);
  • God gives one law in one place and later adjusts it or lays down another law someplace else (compare the slave laws in exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15);
  • sometimes God is overflowing with compassion (Book of Jonah) and at others times he is quick to pull the trigger (Sodom and Gomorrah).

I think the reason the Bible exhibits such diversity of information concerning God’s behaviors (just one example) is that the Bible reflects different moments in Israel’s spiritual journey. Israel’s understanding of God grows, shifts, changes, etc., over time, thus reflecting “where they are” at the moment.

The Bible records a journey.

A great place to see in a nutshell how the Bible isn’t set up to micromanage our process of growth is Proverbs, Israel’s book of wisdom. Proverbs 26:4 and 5 summarize the entire issue, as I see it;

  • Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.
  • Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.

“OK, God, which is it? Which one do I do now? Tell me! The first or the second?” Deafening silence.

What you do depends on the situation you are in, and guess what: you get to figure that out God giving you hints to make sure you get the right answer. 

God doesn’t hand it to you. God doesn’t micromanage. We aren’t on a leash to keep us from making mistakes.

Wisdom is the goal of the maturation process, and it can’t be scripted with assured success. It’s about learning how to negotiate life’s moments when they come up.

Personally, I think that is a great way of summarizing the process of parenting and of spiritual growth.

A Bible that exhibits such diversity does not do well as a script to ensure success. I think the Bible functions very differently, on what I feel is a deeper and more profound level.

If I may rephrase all of this: the Bible’s theological diversity (which is unmistakable) alerts me that treating it as a hovering index of “what to do” sells the Bible short.

If we reflect on it for a moment, common experience demonstrates that the answers to what confronts our day-to-day lives of faith are most often not found in “Bible verses.” Rather, the Bible models for us a spiritual journey of failure, success, adaptation, growth, change—which is far more immediately relevant for God’s people, then and now.

I think the point of the life of faith is to become wise over time, and not to be trained to know which page to flip to to find a one-size-fits-all answer.

***The original version of this post appeared in July 2013. I write more about how the Bible works in the life of faith in The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016) and The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014).***

12 Comments

  • On Ex 21 and Deu 15, I see Scripture as a progressive revelation. It is true that God’s instructions in Scripture get adjusted in later time periods, this is an aspect of what progressive revelation means. I am not sure what problem you think there is here.

    I do not see Proverbs 24:5-6 as 2 separate teaching units (in which case they could be seen as contradictory), I see them as one teaching unit. The wisdom is that there are (at least) 2 choices, each with possible downsides. So pick one knowing the downside and if that does not work, pick the other also knowing the downside.

    • Though both Exodus and Deuteronomy are Mosaic and therefore Sinaitic, in the logic of the narrative. I’ve never been convinced by the “progressive revelation” argument as an accounting of the narrative logic of Torah. After all, how much is the Law supposed to “progress” over 40 years, especially since the whole point of Deut is to relay the Sinaitic revelation to “all those standing here today” (Deut 5).

      • Deu 29:1 These are the words of the covenant that the LORD commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb.

        I see Ex-Num as containing the Sinai/Horeb covenant and Deu as containing the Moab covenant. I think it was at least Deu that was confirmed as Scripture by Huldah and was likely compiled/authored by Baruch and even then I see the final editor of the text as Ezra. But even if the time was only 40 years (the minimum it could be) and all of it was essentially written by Moses, that formulation of the books show it as a progressive revelation. That is, why deny what the text itself is claiming? I would at least start from that as a working assumption until shown to be wrong.

        • Does your theory also work when we bring in Leviticus, including the striking differences within Leviticus (P and H–even if you don’t call them that)? At what point does progressive revelation stop explaining these differences?

          • For Lev, P is conjectured as the chapters 1-16, while H is 17-26, the Holiness code, from what I can discern. Without a specific example, it is challenging to discuss. So I will elaborate on how I understand things to work in generalities.
            One challenge when reading Scripture is what to do when supposed contradictions arise between two texts. Atheists compile lists of these if anyone wants to see examples. The first thing to notice is this means one cannot treat the text as if it were a geometry text, where things are routinely shown to be true forever and ever. The point is some ways to try to read the text are non-starters.
            What I think is supposed to happen is the decision on what to do is made by a faith community that believes the apparently contradictory rules apply to them. This has the indirect effect of promoting Scripture study in community. That is, there will be some method to decide what exactly to do in these cases. And of course, one idea is trying to figure out which formulation was made later following the idea of progressive revelation.

            • This is interesting, Donald, and I agree with much of it (for what it’s worth). But I was after something more specific, namely whether one can apply “progressive revelation” explain the diversity (contradictory content) of significant portions of the legal codes in the Pentateuch. I don’t think it can, and there are other paradigms within biblical scholarship that address well these and other factors.

  • So much in here to love, Pete, thank-you. I think there is something to be said for 2Tim. 2:15, however: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
    It seems we can fall into two opposite errors. On the one hand, we can view the bible as a complete and total work of human-beings utterly devoid of any revelatory qualities whatsoever, or ignore them to our own peril. On the other hand, we can view the bible as a complete and total work of divinity utterly devoid of any significant human qualities, or ignore them to our own peril.

    PS: Thanks for the scriptural references. I’ll be sure to look them up tonight.

    • I’m trying to figure out how views with “opposite errors” relate to views with nuanced literary criticism, love for literature, and love for stories. I don’t see, at least not anymore, how one can have limiting hermeneutics without revealing more foundational cracks of undeveloped literary skills.

  • He’s not a biblical scholar. He makes some observations that are straight down the middle, I think, but I would package some things somewhat deifferently.

  • Always been frustrated by thinking about inspiration that says, “Well, it must be this certain way, or else it isn’t inspiration, and it isn’t worthy of God.” This is exactly how the verbal plenary inspiration doctrine of my fundamentalist evangelical heritage views the topic. And, it seems reflected in some others comments here. Michael Graves book on “Inspiration and Interpretation” about how the early Christians handled scripture (mostly OT scripture) was very instructive for me. I commend to anyone who thinks inspiration must mean X and only X, my X. As Graves clearly shows there were MANY various and contradictory entailments in early Christians as they worked out what inspiration meant for them.
    For me, it seems highly worthy of a loving Parent-God to use the subtle interplay between a culture’s theological maturation (Israel’s) as it grows toward an understanding of God that rises far above that of the surrounding cultures. And by using the oral and written texts of that culture to embed with his own life-giving-ness (God breath) seems far above simply dropping some tablets out of heaven supposedly in the cloak of the clouds (which sounds suspiciously very Mohammed and Joe Smith -ish, IMO). The real question is one I think Pete, and his forebears, answered directly in his Inspiration and Incarnation. If God can deliver his message and his will through the agency of man in the form of the prophets, and the form of a baby, why in the world would we put up such a fuss over his delivering the scriptures to us via the same kind of pathways. Not just THROUGH these agents, but thoroughly STEEPED in the earmarks of these people’s own personal foibles. Even Jesus died with words of both faith and doubt on his lips. Why oh why can’t the texts bear the same??? Why does the text have to be “holier” than Jesus???

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